Newcastle City Council has started moving many of its public services online - including rent payments. While there are still other channels for those who really need them, the council knew they needed to encourage more residents to use online systems and develop their digital skills. That’s where the library and Your Homes Newcastle stepped in.
Lisa Dawson is the Digital Inclusion Officer for Your Homes Newcastle. She explains: "The council has put free WiFi into the communal areas in all sheltered accommodation and many of its tower blocks, and I was charged with helping to educate our tenants about how to make the most of it.
“Our first step was to go out and find the people who really had an interest in learning, and do an intensive week’s course with them. That helped us learn about different barriers, learning styles, and engagement hooks. It also meant we had a team of volunteers ready to champion our cause! We then invested in further ‘digital champion’ training so they had the skills to help others. Occasionally that had the knock-on effect of some of our volunteers going on to employment elsewhere and dropping out of our programme, but with rolling training we’ve actually had reasonably steady numbers.
“We use their local knowledge to help us engage tenants. After that their job is to support the tutor by offering one-to-one support in our classes - something that’s proved hugely popular with learners. Confidence with technology has been one of the biggest barriers for people - especially elderly residents - and it’s amazing what a difference it makes having someone right next to them and troubleshooting right away. Lots of learners have come back to us and said what a good course it is precisely because of the extra support they get.”
The classes were actually held in the UK online centre at Newcastle City Library, using Good Things Foundation’s Learn My Way website. Running on a range of mornings or afternoons throughout the week, the aim was to enable everyone to get to a convenient location at a convenient time.
Andrew Scrogham is Service Specialist for the Information and Digital team at Newcastle Library. He explains: “Although there was WiFi available at housing complexes, there often wasn’t the space, equipment or staff resources to run an effective timetable. We’re lucky in that Newcastle is a relatively compact city with excellent transport links, so actually it’s pretty easy for people to come and find us in a central location. What’s more, we’ve got a state of the art building that’s only 7 years old. Not only is it something of a landmark, but it’s warm, inviting and friendly, and people want to be here.”
Indeed, one of the side effects of the scheme has been tenants who’ve never been to the library before getting out and about, and joining the library for the first time.
Andrew continues: “It’s been great to see some of the residents travel into the city centre for the first time in years, and that in itself is a great boost to their confidence. Once they’re there they can get involved with some of the other library services - like the story time groups for children or the social reading groups for older people.”
In order to help break the distance barrier, the library has also trialled class reminders by text message and on social media. Lisa, the class tutor, adds: “I’ll call or text learners the day before their class to remind them we’re meeting up the next day, and what we’ll be covering. It’s actually a great way to keep in touch people and personalise what we do, and I think overall it has been quite effective in keeping up momentum and getting people along to the library.”
Although originally the idea was that people could practice their new skills at home, Lisa and Andrew have found that very few have actually done so - preferring to come into the library where they’ve got back-up and desktop internet access.
Andrew says: “In terms of development, we’re looking at whether we can get some tablets to work with, because that’s they type of access people are more likely to have at home, and that might make it easier to transfer their learning and their skills. We’ve got a great team of volunteers now, and a really effective partnership with the Housing Association, so the next step is thinking about how we use both of those things to really embed these new skills.”
Lisa agrees. “Learn My Way is already pretty good for that,” she adds, “because it’s quite practical and instant. Someone who wants to learn about Facebook or Skype, for instance, can click through the course quite easily and progress quite fast. That instant gratification keeps people coming back. They can see the results, and they don’t have to do things they don’t want or need to know about.”
One of the learners who’s been benefitting from Lisa’s classes is Christopher McGee, 66. He says: “I’m very interested in computers, but I’ve made little headway with understanding them in the 10 plus years I’ve had one! Now I’m coming on though, and that’s because this is the best course I’ve ever been on.
“I’m not a natural with computers. It’s my age, maybe. I’m not like these kids who’ve taken it up and are flying in about 10 minutes flat! I know I’m missing out on the benefits of the internet, but the truth is that I’ve been scared of it.
“I like Learn My Way, though, because it’s very well described - very easy to follow. And if you have a hiccup there’s someone sitting right next to you to help! I like that one-to-one thing. Lisa is at the front, but David [the volunteer] was monitoring me right beside me. I think I benefitted from that and felt a lot more grounded as well.
“I like to use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, and I want to know more about downloading photographs and music. I could do Learn My Way at home, I suppose, but I don’t have the discipline! I like to come to the library - it’s much easier for me because somebody else is involved. Now I’m optimistic about my future with computers.”